Restaurant dining is expected to look a lot different in Michigan this summer and, in Detroit, it could mean tables stretched across city blocks, parking lots and even alleys as officials aim to help resuscitate an industry reeling from a months-long shutdown.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has yet to lift the ban on dining in the lower half of the state, but when she does, the city of Detroit wants to help restaurants expand outdoor seating to serve more customers, a source with the Duggan administration says.
The move could help restaurants get around the 50-percent occupancy limits expected when they reopen, which Grand Trunk Pub and Checker Bar owner Tim Tharp says will be crucial for reviving an ailing industry that operates on thin profit margins.
“We can’t survive at 50-percent capacity without raising food prices 50 percent,” said Tharp. “Can we (survive at partial capacity) as a stepping stone? Yes. But getting restaurants back to normal working conditions as quick as possible is so important.”
In a letter sent to Mayor Mike Duggan last week, the Detroit Restaurant & Lodging Association, of which Tharp is vice chairman, asked for fast-track approvals for expanded outdoor seating as well as lobbying the state to allow for “social districts” — designated outdoor zones where people can buy and consume to-go drinks.
Behind the scenes, officials are working at least on the former, with plans to try to have the Department of Public Works begin handling outdoor approvals. Currently, those decisions rest with city council.
Birmingham and Plymouth have taken steps to allow restaurants to spread into curb lanes, sidewalks and alleys, Crain’s reported this week. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers is backing a bill that would authorize local governments to create social districts.
New rules for the industry, which reopened last week in northern Michigan, include placing tables at least six feet apart and requiring that servers, bartenders and hosts wear masks.